Our future with robots

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Document 1 : Robbie the robot

Mrs. Weston waited patiently for two minutes, then impatiently for two more, and finally broke the silence.


“Hmpph ”

“George, I say! Will you put down that paper and look at me ”

The paper rustled to the floor and Weston turned a weary face toward his wife, “What is it, dear ”

“You know what it is, George. It’s Gloria and that terrible machine.”

“What terrible machine ”

“Now don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s that robot Gloria calls Robbie. He doesn’t leave her for a moment.”

“Well, why should he He’s not supposed to. And he certainly isn’t a terrible machine. He’s the best darn robot money can buy and I’m damned sure he set me back half a year’s income. He’s worth it, though ‒ darn sight cleverer than half my office staff.”

He made a move to pick up the paper again, but his wife was quicker and snatched it away.

“You listen to me, George. I won’t have my daughter entrusted to a machine ‒ and I don’t care how clever it is. It has no soul, and no one knows what it may be thinking. A child just isn’t made to be guarded by a thing of metal.”

Weston frowned, “When did you decide this He’s been with Gloria two years now and I haven’t seen you worry till now.”

“It was different at first. It was a novelty it took a load off me, and ‒ and it was a fashionable thing to do. But now I don’t know. The neighbors—”

“Well, what have the neighbors to do with it Now, look. A robot is infinitely more to be trusted than a human nursemaid. Robbie was constructed for only one purpose really ‒ to be the compan­ion of a little child. His entire ‘mentality’ has been created for the purpose. He just can’t help being faithful and loving and kind. He’s a machine – made so. That’s more than you can say for humans.”

“But something might go wrong. Some – some—” Mrs. Weston was a bit hazy about the insides of a robot, “some little jigger will come loose and the awful thing will go berserk and – and—” She couldn’t bring herself to complete the quite obvious thought.

“Nonsense,” Weston denied, with an involuntary nervous shiv­er. “That’s completely ridiculous. We had a long discussion at the time we bought Robbie about the First Law of Robotics. You know that it is impossible for a robot to harm a human being that long before enough can go wrong to alter that First Law, a robot would be completely inoperable. It’s a mathematical impossibility.”

Isaac Asimov, “Robbie”, I, Robot, 1950.

Document 2 : Two paths toward our robot future

Markoff1 begins with the story of Bill Duvall, a young programmer hired to write code for Shakey2. Duvall became frustrated with the limitations of the robotics project and decamped to another research group, just down the hall at Stanford Research Institute, which was engaged in an entirely different sort of enterprise, called the N.L.S., or “oN-Line System”. This project, led by a computer scientist named Doug Engelbart, was aimed at creating “an inter­active system to capture knowledge and organize information in such a way that it would now be possible for a small group of people—scientists, engineers, educators—to create and collaborate more effectively.” The project, in other words, was an early version of the Internet. Not long after walking down the hall and leaving Shakey to its own limited and whirring devices, Duvall used Engelbart’s N.L.S. software to connect a computer in Menlo Park to one in Los Angeles via a data line rented from a phone company. “Bill Duvall,” as Markoff puts it, “would become the first to make the leap from research to replace humans with computers to using computers to augment the human intellect, and one of the first to stand on both sides of an invisible line that even today divides two rival, insular engineering communities.”

For Markoff, the difference between these two fields, A.I. and I.A.3, is the difference between a future in which human capabilities are enhanced by technology and one in which humans are made effectively obsolete, versioned out by the consequences of our own ingenuity. These two ways of thinking about our relationship with technology, he writes, have remained in a state of unresolved conflict: “One approach supplants humans with an increasingly powerful blend of computer hardware and software. The other extends our reach intellectually, economically, and socially using the same ingredients.”

Markoff’s argument, made in various ways using various examples—industrial mass production, robotics, machine learning, and so on—is that we have now reached a point in the development of these technologies where we can no longer avoid bridging this chasm between the A.I. and I.A. philosophies. Not to do so, he argues, would be to risk a future in which humans become effectively obsolete as meaningful actors in our own world.

Mark O’Connell, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner, 
October 1, 2015.

1. Markoff: a journalist interested in artificial intelligence.

2. Shakey: a six-foot-tall robot.

3. A.I. and I.A.: Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Augmentation.


Document 1

1Make a list of the characters

1. who are present.

2. who are mentioned.

2Say how these characters are all related.

3 1. Explain what the main characters are talking about.

2. Say how the conversation illustrates the general atmosphere.

4 Choosing among the following adjectives, qualify the general atmosphere from line 1 to line 16. Justify with examples.

warm – tense – friendly – congenial – heavy – hostile – relaxed

5 “It’s Gloria and that terrible machine” (l. 8-9).

1. Say what the “machine” is used for.

2. Did the two main characters want to buy the “machine” for the same reason at first

3. Do they both want to keep the “machine”

6 Contrast their opinions about the advantages and the inconven­iences of the “machine”. Justify by quoting the text.

Les candidat(e)s des séries ES, S et L LVO traiteront la question 7.

7“He just can’t help being faithful and loving and kind” (l. 32).

What does “can’t help” imply

Seul(e)s les candidat(e)s de la série L option LVA traiteront la question 8.

8 “His entire ‘mentality’ has been created for the purpose. […] He’s a machine – made so. That’s more than you can say for humans” (l. 31-33).

1. Why is the word “mentality” mentioned

2. By contrast, how does the character consider human beings

Document 2

9 Mention the benefits of the “N.L.S.” or oN-Line System (l. 6).

10 Answer the following questions. Justify by quoting the text.

1. Is the N.L.S. a precursor of the Internet

2. Are Shakey and the N.L.S. two different programmes

3. Why did Bill Duvall abandon the programme related to Shakey

11 “‘Bill Duvall,’ as Markoff puts it, ‘would become the first to make the leap from research to replace humans with computers to using computers to augment the human intellect’” (l. 15-18).

Explain what this quote means.

Les candidat(e)s des séries ES, S et L LVO traiteront la question 12.

12 “One approach supplants humans with an increasingly powerful blend of computer hardware and software.” (l. 27-28)

Explain the relationship implied between humans and computers.

Seul(e)s les candidat(e)s de la série L option LVA traiteront la question 13.

13 “It has no soul, and no one knows what it may be thinking” (document 1, l. 20-21).

What could be contradictory in this quote

Documents 1 and 2

14 How are the dangers mentioned in document 2 echoed in document 1 (40 words)


 Les candidat(e)s des séries ES, S et L LVO traiteront les sujets 1 ET 2.

1 One of the two main characters in document 1 writes an article on Robbie’s first day with the Weston family for the local newspaper. (150 words)

2 Can technology expand our intellectual, economic and social life as implied in document 2, line 29 (150 words)

 Seuls les candidat(e)s de la série L option LVA traiteront le sujet 3.

3 To what extent does technology contribute to human progress Support your arguments with examples. (300 words)

Les clés du sujet

Document 1


Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) est né en Russie mais a écrit aux États-Unis de nombreuses œuvres de science-fiction, très visionnaires, en particulier par leur réflexion sur les robots : il a notamment défini les trois lois de la robotique (le texte se réfère à la première : un robot ne peut porter atteinte à un être humain, ni, en restant passif, permettre qu’un être humain soit exposé au danger).

Pour en savoir plus : www.asimovonline.com

Résumé du texte

M. et Mme Weston se disputent au sujet du robot qui sert de nounou à leur fille : Mme Weston souhaite que la machine ne travaille plus pour eux, tandis que M. Weston ne voit pas où est le problème.

Vocabulaire utile à la compréhension

weary (l. 6) : las  darn (l. 14) : fichu  income (l. 15) : revenus  to be worth it (l. 15-16) : en valoir la peine  to entrust (l. 19) : confier  a nursemaid (l. 29) : une bonne d’enfants  purpose (l. 30) : but  hazy (l. 35) : flou  jigger (l. 35) : machin  to go berserk (l. 36) : devenir fou.

Document 2


Mark O’Connell est journaliste indépendant. Il écrit des critiques littéraires dans plusieurs journaux en ligne comme Slate ou, ici, The New Yorker, magazine américain qui paraît depuis 1925.

Pour en savoir plus : www.newyorker.com

Résumé du texte

Cette critique parle du livre d’un journaliste scientifique, John Markoff, qui cite lui-même l’exemple de Bill Duvall, un programmeur qui a décidé non plus d’augmenter les capacités de l’intelligence artificielle, mais de profiter des avantages de la technologie pour améliorer les capacités humaines, afin que l’être humain ne soit pas un jour obsolète et dépassé par les machines qu’il aura créées.

Vocabulaire utile à la compréhension

hired (l. 2) : engagé  whirring devices (l. 13) : des appareils bruyants  make the leap (l. 16-17) : franchir le fossé  enhanced (l. 23) : amélioré  versioned out (l. 24) : (ici) dépassé  blend (l. 28) : mélange  avoid (l. 34) : éviter  chasm (l. 35) : gouffre.

Les points de convergence

Les deux textes font le constat des progrès de l’intelligence artificielle, en mettant en relief ses dangers, notamment le risque que les machines trop intelligentes dépassent l’homme.

Le sujet d’expression 1

Une direction possible

Quel que soit le personnage choisi, faire la liste des compétences du robot, et exprimer l’admiration, l’étonnement. Ils étaient en effet tous deux enthousiastes à son arrivée.

Key ideas

Robbie’s skills are impressive it is amazing to realize that our child can totally be entrusted to such a machine forget about hiring a human nanny, Robbie is devoted to its job, works for free and is never ill.

Le sujet d’expression 2

Une direction possible

Il est de plus en plus facile de tout faire grâce à la technologie : accès aux livres électroniques, échanges économiques, réseaux sociaux… Les applications des smartphones révèlent à elles seules toutes ces possibilités.

Key ideas

Social networks facilitate exchanges and make it easier to keep in touch with our friends apps on cell phones illustrate how technology has chang­ed and improved our lives.

Le sujet d’expression 3 (candidat.e.s LVA uniquement)

Une direction possible

De nombreuses technologies visent à améliorer l’humain, comme la bionique. Les réseaux sociaux visent à améliorer notre vie sociale. On peut aller jusqu’au transhumanisme. Mais quelle est la place de l’humain dans cette nouvelle société où tout devient de plus en plus virtuel 

Key ideas

Bionics aims at improving human capacities thanks to the use of technology implanted in our bodies technology makes everything easier, especially communication to what extent does it constitute real progress for mankind



Document 1

1 1. The characters present are Mrs. Weston and Mr. George Weston.

2. The characters mentioned are Gloria and Robbie.


Penser à utiliser le génitif avec ’s pour parler des relations entre les personnages.

2 Mr. and Mrs. Weston are married. Gloria is their daughter and Robbie is Gloria’s robot nursemaid/nanny.

3 1. Mr. and Mrs. Weston are talking about whether they should keep Robbie as Gloria’s nanny.

2. The atmosphere is tense, as the two characters disagree about the subject, which takes the form of an argument. While she insists on having this conversation, Mrs. Weston explains why she has changed her mind about the idea of having this robot, which annoys her husband. Therefore there are silences and interruptions.

4 Tense: “and finally broke the silence” (l. 2).

Heavy: “and finally broke the silence” (l. 2) “Now don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about” (l. 11) “Well, what have the neighbors to do with it ” (l. 28).

Hostile : “and snatched it away” (l. 18) “You listen to me, George” (l. 19) “Nonsense” (l. 38).

5 1. This machine is used to look after/take care of Gloria, the child. It’s her “nursemaid”.

2. No. Mr. Weston wanted a robot because he thought it was more reliable and trustworthy than a human (l. 28-29) whereas Mrs. Weston bought it as a “novelty” (l. 25), something new, trendy, a domestic appliance that everyone else had around her.

3. No. Mr. Weston would like to keep it because he finds it useful and reliable, while Mrs. Weston starts this conversation in order to get rid of it. She fears something might go wrong with it and also because of “the neighbors”.

6 According to Mr. Weston, a robot is perfectly safe, and more “faithful and loving and kind” (l. 32) than many humans. He trusts it completely. On the contrary, Mrs. Weston fears it might “go wrong” (l. 34) and become dangerous for her daughter, especially as Robbie follows Gloria everywhere.

Uniquement pour les candidat(e)s des séries ES, S et L LVO

7 It means that the robot can’t be otherwise, as it was programmed to be like that: that’s the way it has to be.

Uniquement pour les candidat(e)s de la série L option LVA

8 1. The word “mentality” usually applies to humans, their intelligence, their thoughts and behaviour. By using it for the robot, Mr. Weston implies that the robot has been programmed with all the best human characteristics.

2. By contrast, he thinks that human beings are inferior to robots in many fields, being less trustworthy, intelligent, and less likely to remain “faithful and loving and kind”.

Document 2

9The N.L.S., or “oN-Line System”, allowed small groups of people to work together more easily by gathering data and making it accessible to anyone.

10 1. Yes: “The project […] was an early version of the Internet” (l. 11-12).

2. Yes: “which was engaged in an entirely different sort of entreprise, called the N.L.S.” (l. 5-6).

3. Because it was too limited: “Duvall became frustrated with the limitations of the robotics project” (l. 2-3).

11 It means that he was the first person to start working in robotics and artificial intelligence in order to replace humans by robots, and eventually turned to developing human capacities through intelligence augmentation and thus helping humans instead.

Uniquement pour les candidat(e)s des séries ES, S et L LVO

12 In this case, the relationship is one of domination and superiority from the robots’ part.

Uniquement pour les candidat(e)s de la série L option LVA

13 It’s paradoxical to notice that even if Mrs. Weston acknowledges that a robot is “soulless”, she still considers that it may have thoughts of its own – while it merely processes information.

Documents 1 and 2

14 In document 2, we can read about the fear that robots might some day become superior to humans, and make them obsolete, useless. This danger is echoed in document 1, as we can see that Robbie has already replaced a human nursemaid and is seen as more trustworthy.


1 Guidelines

New robotic nursemaid in our homes!

Robo-tick has just released a new robot whose task is to take care of children. My husband and I just couldn’t wait to try it. “Robbie”, as we now call it (or should I say “him” – or “her” ) was quite expensive, but after only one day, I can say it was worthwhile! It has been programmed to follow the child it looks after like a puppy, and ensure the child is always safe. Contrary to a human being, it is a hundred percent devoted to its task. It has a voice recognition system which enables it to understand all that the child asks. It can tell stories and play hundreds of different games. It is completely trustworthy and reliable. I do advise anyone with toddlers to go and buy one! You’ll be just amazed, and you will be at rest – at last!

Selma Weston